THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A fire on a freight ship carrying nearly 3,000 cars was burning out of control Wednesday in the North Sea, killing one crew member and injuring others, the Dutch coast guard said.
The agency said it was working to save the vessel from sinking close to an important habitat for migratory birds.
Boats and helicopters were used to get the 23 crew members off the ship after they tried unsuccessfully to put out the blaze, the coast guard said in a statement. The cause of the blaze wasn’t immediately known, and it wasn’t clear how the crew member died.
The Fremantle Highway was sailing from the German port of Bremerhaven to Singapore when it caught fire about 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of the Dutch island of Ameland.
As the blaze continued throughout the day, a salvage company sent an expert to assess the possibility of fastening a cable to the ship that could be used to tow it, the coast guard said.
Some of the crew members jumped off the ship’s deck into the sea and were picked up by a lifeboat, the lifeboat’s captain told Dutch broadcaster NOS. Some of the crew suffered broken bones, burns and breathing problems and were taken to hospitals in the northern Netherlands, emergency services said.
“Currently, there are a lot of vessels on scene to monitor the situation and to see how to get the fire under control,” coast guard spokesperson Lea Versteeg said by phone.
“But it’s all depending on weather and the damage to the vessel. So we’re currently working out to see how we can make sure that … the least bad situation is going to happen,” Versteeg said.
Asked if it was possible the ship would sink, she said, “It’s a scenario we’re taking into account and we’re preparing for all scenarios.”
By early afternoon, two ships were alongside the freighter, hosing down its sides in an attempt to cool them, the coast guard said, but firefighters were still unable to extinguish the flames and smoke was billowing out of the hold.
Images published in the afternoon by the coast guard showed gray smoke pouring out of the stricken ship.
Its location is close to a chain of Dutch and German islands popular with tourists in the shallow Wadden Sea, a World Heritage-listed area described by UNESCO as “the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world” and “one of the most important areas for migratory birds in the world.”
Versteeg said the vessel was carrying 2,857 cars, including 25 electric cars, making fighting the flames more difficult.
“It’s not easy to keep that kind of fire under control and even in such a vessel it’s not easy,” Versteeg said.
The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha Ltd, said it was working in cooperation with the local authorities of the Netherlands, a salvage company and a ship management company.
“We will keep on endeavoring to extinguish the fire and recover the situation as soon as possible,” the company said in a statement on its website. “There is no information on oil pollution due to this incident as of now.”
The company expressed “sincere condolence” for the death of the crew member.
The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management said that permission had been given to salvage the ship “as soon as that is possible.” The ministry said that the busy North Sea shipping lanes remained accessible for other vessels.
A coast guard ship used to contain oil spills also was on its way to the scene as a precaution.
One towing ship managed to establish a connection with the freighter to hold it in place.
“We hope that the fire will be under control or will die out and that we can get the vessel in a safe location,” Versteeg said. “But it’s all uncertain what’s going to happen now.”
The coast guard said in a statement that salvage companies and water authorities were “looking at the best ways to limit the damage as much as possible.”
Authorities in nearby Germany were also on alert, German news agency dpa reported. They initially sent a tug, the Nordic, to the scene that helped cool the sides of the burning ship before later replacing it with another vessel.
Kirsten Grieshaber and Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.